As Britain prepares to celebrate China’s vibrant arts scene, our writer meets Zhang Xiaogang, China's Red Star
Source: The Times(UK) (www.timesonline.co.uk), by Jane Macartney
It’s a sign of the times. One of China’s most successful artists has just taken over the shell of a bankrupt motorcycle helmet factory as his studio. And the government apparatchiks who once banned his work are lining up for a chance to show off his paintings.
Zhang Xiaogang seems almost untouched by his rise to fame and fortune. An unassuming, bespectacled man of nearly 50, he is unimpressed that his paintings can now command between $500,000 and $1 million per canvas. And several times that at auction.
But he is excited that several of his paintings will be on show soon at the Saatchi collection in London as part of the China Now festival.
“Is there a meaning to showing my art in London? Of course there is. Britain is a great centre for art with its museums and its galleries. It’s a great opportunity to show my works to an audience that has such a deep historical appreciation of culture.”
Sitting at a huge table in his cavernous new studio, Zhang lights another cigarette. Lining the walls are his latest works, half-finished canvases and others already signed and ready for display. He is a thoughtful man, clearly delighted to discuss the forces that have inspired him. He is thrilled that his paintings have drawn the attention of a buyer such as Charles Saatchi, who acquired his first Zhang Xiaogang work at auction and has since bought several directly from the artist. That first painting was one of Zhang’s acclaimed Bloodlineseries, which has broken records at auctions in the West for a couple of years now.
These androgynous portraits, based on the stiff studio family photographs popular during the Cultural Revolution years in the 1960s and 1970s, can be disturbing. Zhang is the first to agree. “These are not happy paintings,” he says, “but they reflect my innermost feelings.” He recounts the tale of one Chinese buyer who hung one on the landing. His wife got up one night to fetch a drink in the kitchen, walked back up the stairs and was so terrified by the black pools of the portrait’s eyes that she took a tumble. The owner had to go back to the gallery and swap the painting for something less troubling by another artist. “The eyes are the most important for me and I use a special technique that takes me a long time,” Zhang says. “You could say these paintings are really sick and the people appear stupefied.”
It was with this series, which he now prefers to call Big Family, that he feels he finally found his way as an artist after floundering for more than a decade during the 1980s and early 1990s. “They reflect the contradictions in China between the individual and society,” he says. “Contradictions in so many relationships – not just within families, but among friends and in the workplace.”
He happened across some family photographs on a visit to his parents in 1993. “I felt very excited, as if a door had opened. I could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective and it was from this that I started really to paint.” He chose the chaotic era of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution because this was when the individual was entirely subsumed by the group, yet these photographs allowed their subjects to retain a tiny speck of their real self. For Zhang, this age of revolutionary fervour and the relationships it stirred are unique to China. However, his work is not intended to show links to the Cultural Revolution, but to reflect the psychology of people who had lived through such turbulent times.
“There’s a complex relationship between the state and the people that I could express by using the Cultural Revolution. China is like a family, a big family. Everyone has to rely on each other and to confront each other. This was the issue I wanted to give attention to and, gradually, I became less and less linked to the Cultural Revolution and more to people’s states of mind.”
It was many years before these paintings, based on photographs from an era the authorities are keen to forget, were permitted to be displayed publicly in China. In 1996, Zhang was thrilled to be invited to show at the Shanghai Biennale, but his work was pulled on the orders of a senior Communist Party official anxious about what he saw as reminiscences of the Cultural Revolution. That is no longer an issue.
A combination of international fame and changes in official attitudes have transformed Zhang into virtually an Establishment artist. He was even commissioned by the authorities to provide a painting for the metro in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen – though the soaring value has meant that the work is now on show in a city museum.
A slow painter who works alone, often at night, Zhang can barely keep pace with demand. He gestures to one painting of five little boys that remains unfinished after four years. Most of his buyers are international collectors. “Many people in China want to buy my paintings now,” he says, “but for them art is like stocks and shares, and they just want to ‘stir-fry’ the prices. So I am careful who I sell to.” In the past two years he estimates that he has sold five or six paintings in China, compared with up to 40 to foreign buyers.
He is now in the throes of two new series – Inside and Outside and Amnesia and Memory. The wrenching changes that are transforming China at an unprecedented pace fascinate Zhang. “When the order comes to raze a place, then it is razed in an instant.
Sometimes an ancient building that has existed for thousands of years gets in the way of a road and it just disappears. This can erase someone’s memories overnight.”
Some of the most imposing works lining his vast studio are landscapes that he describes with passion as personal memories of China as he remembers it. “In Italy, every second of their history is valuable. In China history is like water, it flows and disappears. I want to face tomorrow. We have sacrificed much of yesterday for tomorrow in China.”
One arresting painting is a huge, flat landscape in greys and blacks, the only colour from a naked baby splashed in red and yellow, and dotted by a string of loudspeakers. The loudspeakers show up in several paintings in the Amnesia and Memory series. Zhang remembers these as an integral part of his childhood years, exiled to a village where loudspeakers bellowing out music and state propaganda were the only entertainment. “There was nothing else to hear, no other choice.” His choice of colours continues the sombre hues of the Big Familyseries. Zhang says this is no surprise, likening his work to a tree with many different branches growing out from the trunk. “I don’t want to plant a forest, but a single tree that I hope will grow to be very big. I really have just one strand of thought and I dig deeper and deeper until I can’t go any farther. I will only change when I’m utterly sick of it.”